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Professors research resilient farmlands, housing in coastal areas and cities

The 2015 Paris Agreement set the goal of limiting global warming to below two, but preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

However, a report published by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) shows that while countries are taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will not be enough to limit a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. 

While countries meet this month to negotiate and discuss the next steps relating to the climate change crisis at COP27, the 27th Conference of Parties hosted by the UNFCCC in Egypt, professors at Notre Dame are also working on climate change initiatives.

Galla Professor of Biological Sciences and director of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative Jennifer Tank’s research focuses on how agriculture impacts stream and freshwater ecosystems and how nutrients and carbon cycle in streams. 

Nutrient runoff from farm fields can be harmful to freshwater ecosystems because the runoff raises the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, causing algal blooms and low oxygen dead zones, Tank says. This process, known as eutrophication, results in excess algae and plant matter which eventually decompose, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide which contribute to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. 

Tank’s research involves working with farmers in the Midwest to implement conservation practices to mitigate and minimize the impact that farming has on freshwater. 

While her research documents ecological outcomes of conservation practices like cover crops and restoring floodplains, Tank said there is another piece to conservation associated with changing farmers’ behaviors and trying to incentivize them to adopt conservation practices. 

Tank further discussed how many farmers are concerned about environmental impacts but their primary concern is their agricultural yield.  

When negotiating with farmers, Tank said she leads with the “unpredictability and extreme events rather than climate change” because farmers know that the weather every year is uncertain, and this negatively impacts their productivity. 

Cover crops are beneficial for the environment, but they are also beneficial for farmers because they increase levels of carbon in soils which increases yields.

“The approach we take is to meet in the area of shared values, rather than trying to push an agenda,” Tank said. 

Co-authors Debra Javeline, associate professor of political science, and Tracy Kijewski-Correa, professor of engineering and global affairs, are also working on research looking at how to incentivize people to make more environmentally-conscious decisions. Their research relates to homeowners living in coastal areas and aims to inform insurers, leaders and policymakers about incentives to motivate homeowners to protect themselves.

“We are working with communities all over the world to try to understand how they are adapting to the acute effects of climate change as manifested in increased storm intensity, sea level rise and other factors in coastal areas,” Correa said. “Not only are we seeing more frequent disasters but every variety of disaster, from massive wildfires to flooding all across the United States and massive hurricanes in the southeast and Atlantic coasts, are driven by climate change.

These disasters result in losses of life and losses of hundreds of billions of dollars a year used to rebuild communities decimated after natural disasters. 

In an email, Javeline said that when a major event happens “we should not reflexively start paying the billions of dollars it costs to rebuild infrastructure in hazardous coastal locations.”

Instead, she suggested that people should consider where “infrastructure dollars are best spent, given climate change and the need to invest wisely in more sustainable locations.”

Correa recommends that policymakers incentivize families to make investments in their homes through a market-based approach that makes it attractive for people to invest in safe homes. Some of these policies include offering discounts on insurance premiums and real estate markets rewarding behaviors by raising the value of homes that adopt protective measures against flooding, strong winds and sea level rise. 

“This resilience benefits the homeowners, who don’t want to be stuck with the financial and emotional toll of losses, and it benefits the insurers who would otherwise have to pay for those losses,” Javeline said via email. 

While Correa and Javeline’s research focuses on coastal areas, professor of engineering and geosciences Harindra Joseph Fernando is investigating how climate change affects urban areas. 

Fernando is working with the Community Research on Climate and Urban Science (CROCUS) laboratory as a co-principal investigator to look at how climate change affects urban areas to build more resilient cities. The project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

“Our research is focused on developing a quantitative understanding of the symbiosis between cities and their natural surroundings within the holistic climate system” to predict how climate variability will affect people living in urban areas, Fernando said via email. 

Fernando explained that the research will use computer simulations to understand how engineered elements like buildings, roads, pavements and industrial areas will affect the local environment. These models will guide mitigation strategies for environmental degradation.

The impacts of climate change influence a variety of different research topics, ranging from building resilient farmlands to incentivizing homeowners living in coastal areas to make investments in safer housing, to designing cities that can withstand climate change. 

There are many faculty whose work is informed by or impacted by climate change, and it is an interdisciplinary area of study.

“The ways we can think about climate change impacts as well as what we do next are so diverse,” Tank said.

Contact Caroline Collins at ccolli23@nd.edu

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Alumni lectures on environmental ‘triple threat’

The “environment is a threat multiplier, whether it’s climate change, the loss of biodiversity or pollution,” said Valerie Hickey, the Kroc Institute’s 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, in her lecture at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies on Tuesday afternoon.

Hickey, who received her Master of Arts from Notre Dame in 2000, is the global director for environment, natural resources and the blue economy at the World Bank. In her lecture, Hickey detailed the ways in which climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution — what she calls the “triple threat” — exacerbate conflict and poverty throughout the world.

“We know that from 1946 to 2010, 40% of interstate conflict was made worse by — or paid for by — environmental crime and the loss of biodiversity,” Hickey said. “A quarter of conflicts between 2014 and 2018 were fights over natural resources.”

Hickey warned that as climate change has a more pronounced impact on the world, these conflicts over natural resources will only increase.

“For every one-degree-Celsius increase in global temperature, we’re going to see domestic violence rise by 2.42% and intergroup violence rise by 11.3%,” she said.

Hickey detailed that by 2050, in places such as Mali, GDP could decrease by 6.5% every year as a result of the environmental triple threat. In Nigeria, a 53% loss and in Ghana, a 60% loss in fishing stock is expected as a result of climate change and a lack of biodiversity, she said. Currently, 70 million people earn their living from the fishing industry in West Africa.

While recognizing the severity of the problems caused by climate change, a lack of biodiversity and pollution, Hickey also acknowledged that there is no easy solution to these problems. Perhaps the most immediately pressing obstacle is a lack of capital.

“In 2020, there was $632 billion spent on climate finance,” Hickey stated, “That’s a lot less than the $4 trillion that was needed.”

Hickey said that a big part of this problem stems from the fact that many in Western nations are — perhaps rightfully so — hesitant to commit their tax dollars to help other countries deal with the effects of climate change.

“Eleven percent of Americans and 39 million people live below the poverty line in this country,” Hickey noted. “Are we going to ask the families in Flint, Michigan who can’t get clean water out of their pipes to pay for climate emissions in China? There’s not such an easy answer.”

In addition to the lack of investment into solutions to climate change, Hickey said there is also a dispute over how the money that is spent ought to be allocated.

“If we’re spending 93% percent of climate finance on mitigation, we’re sacrificing current generations who don’t have the coping strategies to deal with climate change today, for the interests of future generations,” she said. “That’s not climate justice either.”

While much of Hickey’s lecture centered on the devastating effects of climate change and the barriers to solutions, she highlighted the fact that these issues are being addressed — even if progress is slow.

“We’re also finally seeing the emergence of leadership that is much stronger than we’ve seen in a while and people standing up for what’s right and for good, even though they have to sacrifice,” Hickey said.

You can contact Liam Kelly at lkelly8@nd.edu

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ND-GAIN index aims to lower climate risks, promote adaptation to climate change

Increasingly people, governments and corporations must cope with the impact of climate extremes, Professor Jessica McManus Warnell said.

According to McManus Warnell, an affiliated faculty member of the ND Environmental Change Initiative which houses the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN). The organization aims to help private and public sectors prioritize climate adaptation, ultimately lowering risk and enhancing readiness.

ND-GAIN is a consortium of researchers dedicated to examining vulnerability and adaptation data globally and within the United States. The initiative works to enhance the world’s understanding of adaptation through knowledge, products and services that inform public and private actions, and investments in vulnerable communities, McManus Warnell said.

However, sustainability metrics are a separate issue. Notre Dame is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education and tracks campus sustainability through its STARS program. 

Danielle Wood, the project director of ND-GAIN, added that ND-GAIN is “an open-source index,” meaning it can “help private and public sectors prioritize investments for climate adaptation to better lower risk and enhance readiness.”

McManus Warnell said she introduces the index to students in her business ethics and sustainability classes as “an example of a science-based tool for communicating climate change data to key stakeholders including communities, governments and businesses.”

Classes in which she has shared the index with students include several offered through the management department at the Mendoza College of Business, like Foundations of Ethical Behavior, Sustainable Communities and Global Business and Climate, Economics and Business Ethics.  

ND-GAIN is “one of the first and still one of the few international climate indices,” Wood said. “It is used by a variety of stakeholders, from federal agencies around the world to NGOs like the Global Center on Adaptation out of the Netherlands and financial entities like Morgan Stanley. It gathers 45 core indicators to measure vulnerability and readiness and allows users to compare countries for risk and readiness.” 

McManus Warnell said she believes ND-GAIN is an important program that addresses a pertinent topic. As the impacts of a changing climate impact communities around the world, “stakeholders and decision makers need robust data upon which to base policy development, investment decisions and other public and private actions.”  

The decline of ND-GAIN leader scores is driven by the index’s measurement of climate readiness, which consists of economic, governance and social components. At the same time, “many of the highest-ranked countries saw an increase in vulnerability to the effects of climate change,” McManus Warnell said.

ND-GAIN measures vulnerability across six components — including food, water, health, human habitat, infrastructure and ecosystem services — for sensitivity, exposure and adaptive capacity to climate risks.

There are similarities among leaderboard countries, Wood said.

“Many do face moderate exposure to climate change, but they have good capacities to deal with the potential climate risks,” she said. “In general, they are also better prepared for natural disasters and practice good governance, which is essential to adaptation.”

At the same time, Wood said the drop of ND-GAIN scores among the highest-ranked countries should serve as a critical reminder.

“The decline of the top-ranked countries underscores that no country is immune to potentially extreme impacts of climate change,” she said.

In McManus Warnell’s courses, she introduces ND-GAIN as the class examines issues of adaptation to climate change.

“Adaptation, or the process through which humans and human systems adjust to climate and its effects to both minimize harm and identify benefits, depends on good data,” she said. “Government officials, business leaders and other decision-makers can’t determine how to respond if they can’t measure what’s happening and what’s coming.  ND-GAIN’s vulnerability and adaptive capacity data is informing decision-makers around the world, and it is a powerful example for students of how data can inform decision-making. Students will, of course, soon be the decision-makers in these leadership roles.”

On Notre Dame’s campus, McManus Warnell said the University has the Office of Sustainability along with other initiatives such as a standing committee representing students, faculty and administrators in operations and from functional units across the campus who work on Notre Dame’s sustainability strategies.  

“Communities can use ND-GAIN data to determine their specific vulnerabilities to climate impacts, to understand readiness and to inform decisions about their adaptation initiatives,” McManus Warnell said. “Businesses can use ND-GAIN data to identify where and how to invest resources, determine new opportunities and respond to specific needs of communities around the world.”

Contact Maxwell Feldmann at mfeldma3@nd.edu